How The Principles Of Environmental Justice Can Improve Health Equity

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In October 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit brought together close to 300 Black, Latino, American Indian, Pacific Islander, Asian American, and other activists of color to elevate the environmental justice movement, which aims to address the inequitable distribution of environmental risks among vulnerable populations. The movement was founded by people of color with an explicit emphasis on securing “political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression.”

The summit was a defining moment in the environmental justice movement’s history. There, leaders outlined the movement’s mission and, in doing so, established a clear connection between environmental justice and public health, highlighting inequities in environmental factors that affect health—such as access to clean air, land, food, and water; the right to a safe and healthy work environment; protection from toxic/hazardous waste; and more.

From the summit emerged a defining document: the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice. These principles outlined the movement’s demands and emphasized its intersection with the environmental drivers of health.

Thirty years after the 1991 summit, the principles that emerged are as important today as they were when published, as environmental injustice remains a core cause of health inequities that disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income communities. As an initial example, tree coverage—which reduces air pollutants and improves health in multiple other ways—has been found to vary by neighborhood population demographics, with greater coverage and health benefits in Whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. Furthermore, today communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to the increasing harmful health effects of climate change, which poses a greater threat to communities without the infrastructure and resources to protect themselves from and rebuild after harmful weather events.

The geographic distribution of federal and state infrastructure projects is also an issue of environmental justice. A report on environmental racism from 1987, four years before the summit, found that race was “the most significant among variables tested in association with the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities” nationally; at the time, “three out of every five Black and Hispanic Americans lived in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites.” As Ramon Jacobs-Shaw discussed in a Forefront article, the Dakota Access Pipeline placement less than a mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is a modern-day example of environmental racism: “when marginalized racial and ethnic minority communities are disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards (such as oil pipelines) compared to more privileged groups.”

Environmental justice has become more visible in recent years, but much remains to be done. To more effectively address the historical and contemporary environmental inequities that cause health inequities, policy makers should revisit the mission and key goals of the environmental justice movement, as captured in the Principles of Environmental Justice, and apply this seminal framework to environmental policy making. Taking a cue from and building on community-led initiatives, policy interventions should target the connection between health inequities and environmental injustice in accordance with the needs and perspectives of the communities they impact. Focusing on this intersection provides an opportunity for more impactful, far-reaching change than would be possible by addressing health and environmental problems separately.

In this article, I will outline how the Principles of Environmental Justice can inform policy and support community empowerment work by focusing specifically on two frameworks present in the Principles of Environmental Justice: participatory and distributive justice.

Where To Target Interventions

To advance health equity, environmental interventions must be rooted in environmental justice. While there are several levels at which environmental injustice needs to be addressed, I propose a focus on the points at which disparities in distribution of environmental benefits or burdens translate into disparities in health.

Many are familiar with the river analogy about the social determinants of health, in which people suffering from poor health are triaged out of a river because something upstream is making them sick. This ominous upstream infector represents the social determinants of health, while the people pulling patients out of the river represent the modern medical system.

I offer a different analogy for the relationship between environmental and health injustice: a tree with roots, a trunk with branches, and fruit growing at the tips.

In this analogy, the roots represent the underlying causes of environmental injustice, namely racism and income inequality. These are the unseen drivers that allow exploitation of powerless people and natural resources, and they are the foundation on which the tree grows. The trunk and branches of the tree represent where power and wealth are stored and distributed. The trunk signifies where decisions about resource distribution are made, and the branches illustrate communities that need resources to thrive. Finally, the fruit on the tree represents the outcome of the resource distribution across branches. Some branches will produce bunches of plump fruit; others will produce fewer, smaller fruits; and some will produce no fruit. Some branches will be so weak that they cannot survive the next harsh winter, while others will grow stronger every year.

Environmental injustice transforms into health injustice at the point when power and wealth can be wielded to improve or protect the environment—in the trunk—but are instead routed away from struggling populations—weak branches—to those that are already thriving—strong branches already bearing fruit. Those weak branches then grow weaker still.

To address the intersection of environmental and health justice located in the tree trunk, the decision-making power lodged there needs to be shared with the communities who will be affected by the outcomes of those decisions. Thus, interventions targeted at this section must be rooted in participatory justice. To address the intersection of environmental justice and health justice located in the branches, the effects of decisions made in the trunk need to be distributed equitably—this doesn’t mean that every branch receives the same resources every year, but that every branch receives what it needs to thrive and produce fruit equally to the other branches. Interventions targeted at this section of the tree must be rooted in distributive justice.

Rooting Interventions In Justice

As framed by the Principles of Environmental Justice, advancing environmental equity through interventions rooted in participatory and distributive justice will improve public health.

Participatory Justice

Participatory justice is about fair participation in decisions that could create problems or solutions for people. This means reallocating decision making, typically held by people who historically hold power in society, to the people affected by the decisions, typically the people disproportionally without power in society. Participatory justice is a central part of the environmental justice movement, as outlined by several of the Principles of Environmental Justice:

  • Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement, and evaluation.
  • Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural, and environmental self-determination of all peoples.
  • Environmental Justice must recognize a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the US government through treaties, agreements, compacts, and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination.

To ensure participatory justice in the decision-making and policy-making processes that impact communities’ physical and social environments, representatives from these groups need to be more than “at the table”; they need to be the actual decision makers. This starts with representatives from affected groups increasing their understanding of the policies about and outcomes of unequal distribution of resources and projects that can harm the environment and increase health risks among communities. Achieving participatory justice must include empowering community leaders to become knowledgeable about the environmental justice issues in their localities and the solutions that could work for their communities.

Efforts to bolster participatory justice are underway in many communities through self-empowerment initiatives. For instance, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice is a resource for environmental justice research, education, and health and safety training for environmental careers with a goal of developing “leaders in communities of color along the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor and the broader Gulf Coast Region that are disproportionately harmed by pollution and vulnerable to climate change.” The Center offers workshops about how to monitor neighborhood environmental hazards, understand the risks of toxic exposures, know the duties of governmental agencies, develop strategic advocacy for policies and decisions that prevent and remedy unsafe environmental conditions, and more.

Furthermore, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice is a grassroots health and environmental justice organization that partners with low-income and working-class, urban, rural, and indigenous communities. They provide trainings for youth and communities at large on how to understand environmental review processes, best practices in community organizing, how to reduce health risks, and more. They also help communities document the health and environmental impacts of harmful projects as well as document the living stories of communities “to ensure that community voices are at the forefront of their struggle and to ensure communities remain in control of their narratives.”

Organizations such as the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice are helping complete a vital part of the participatory justice puzzle by empowering citizens to become experts and advocates about the environmental injustices in their communities. However, if these community leaders and representatives do not hold any political power, they cannot participate in the policy making that impacts their communities. To achieve participatory justice, policy-making power must be redistributed from current policy makers to these local leaders from communities most affected by environmental injustice.

Within current power structures, this means electing environmental justice leaders who can accurately represent and act on input from their constituents. Organizations such as WE ACT for Environmental Justice, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Sunrise Movement provide leadership development opportunities for individuals as well as build support for political candidates that uphold environmental justice values at the local, state, and federal level. In a political system such as that of the US—in which financial support and endorsements from large, nationally known organizations are nearly essential for electoral victory—organizations such as these are a vital steppingstone on the path to redistributing decision-making power to environmental justice leaders.

Distributive Justice

Distributive justice is about more than fair participation in decision making—it is about the outcome of those decisions. Distributive justice concerns how burdens and benefits should be distributed. According to the 2007 text Environmental Justice and Environmentalism, while “many aspects of the environment cannot physically be transferred from one community to another,” distributive justice in terms of environmental justice is about “the distribution of benefits and costs of environmental resources.”

Distributive justice is reflected in several of the Principles of Environmental Justice and is integral to the environmental justice movement:

  • Environmental Justice mandates the right to ethical, balanced, and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things.
  • Environmental Justice affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and [provide] fair access for all to the full range of resources.
  • Environmental Justice calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons, and nuclear testing that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water, and food.

When it comes to environmental resources, both burdens and benefits are at play. Environmental injustice is often caused by the inequitable distribution of a burden that makes an environment less healthy without any extra benefits or resources to compensate for it. One example of this is the unequal distribution of polluted air. A 2013 study in North Carolina found lower socioeconomic status, higher deprivation, and higher share of minority population were consistently associated with higher levels of annual average air pollution. Air pollution has been associated with increases in mortality and hospital admissions due to respiratory and cardiovascular disease. 

Rooting environmental burdens and benefit allocation in distributive justice would ensure communities with disproportionally unhealthy environments do not face continuous risks, while those communities that have been exempted or shielded themselves from environmental harm, as well as done harm unto other communities, receive their proportionate share of environmental burdens. Anchoring environmental policy in distributive justice would equitably allocate resources to help communities invest in building and sustaining healthy environments.

In practice, this might look like measuring the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, as well as their impacts on health, and making decisions that allocate these positive and negative outcomes justly. In other words, all branches of the tree are deserving of resources, and in some instances, certain branches should receive more than others to compensate for generations of inequitable distribution. This redistribution is not easy for many reasons, including that Whiter, wealthier communities are historically resistant to hosting environmental burdens and have the power and resources to protect themselves, shunting these burdens—such as the placement of hazardous waste facilities—to the communities without the economic and political power to resist them.

Using environmental impact statements and health impact assessments is a great place to start measuring the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, but making sure to track outcomes against the initial estimates is vital—and is part of the participatory justice work outlined in the previous section. Also, enforcing regulations around who drafts environmental impact statements is important for their integrity; this was a central problem in the determination of the placement of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Prioritizing those facing the greatest disadvantage when distributing environmental costs and benefits supports communities facing poor health outcomes connected to their environments. As outlined in the Principles, balance of environmental resources and thus balance of their subsequent health effects is a central part of the environmental justice movement.

There are efforts around the US to integrate environmental justice priorities into new projects and policies through acts of distributive justice. For example, St. Paul, Minnesota’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan includes explicit equity components to ensure disadvantaged neighborhoods are not left behind in the city’s adaptations and preparedness for the effects of climate change. For instance, to reduce emissions from the transportation sector, the plan describes transportation equity efforts to specifically support communities of color and low-income communities.

Furthermore, policy makers can ensure that parks in communities of color and low-income communities are preserved through green space protection laws. Parks are associated with several positive health outcomes and protection against the effects of climate change. In 2017, US Representative Nanette Barragán (D-CA) introduced to the House the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Grant Program Act, which would, in Barragán’s words, “protect a National Park Service program that promotes the development of greenspaces and recreation facilities in underserved parts of cities.” Passing laws such as this one aid in equitably distributing greenspace, a beneficial environmental resource.

Moving Forward

Now, targeting interventions at the trunk and branches does not address the roots of the tree—racism and income inequality. This target level instead focuses on the effects of racism and income inequality, rather than addressing the underlying causes themselves.

Many critique this approach on the grounds that equity cannot be reached by operating within systems built on an inequitable foundation. That can hold true, while at the same time we can desire to improve lives and advance equity within current systems, while they unfortunately still exist, to prevent sickness and death from occurring today. Interventions are needed at all levels of the tree—we must uproot structural inequities while still treating those living with the health outcomes caused by them.

Looking back at the Principles of Environmental Justice can inform future interventions aimed at the intersection between environment and health, where changes to environmental policies, and those who get to make them, could improve health outcomes. Using the Principles to frame these reforms would improve environments and subsequently advance health equity and justice.

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